As a dog breeder, one of your many decisions is when to send your puppies home to their new owners. There are many factors that go into deciding that “perfect” age, and opinions vary on the topic.
Most veterinarians and breeders agree that 7-to-8 weeks of age is the prime time for a puppy to meet its new family. In this article, veterinarian and behaviorist Dr. Sally Foote and breeder of working Shetland Sheepdogs Claire Apple weigh in on socialization periods, fear periods, and puppy behavior.
A primary factor in choosing when to send a puppy to a new home is the socialization period, according to Foote. The socialization period in puppies typically lasts from 6-to-12 weeks of age. During this time, puppies are learning the norms of the world around them.
Foote said that it is best for puppies to enter their new homes as soon as possible during this age to give them the best chance at adapting to their new environment. The first behavioral fear period in puppies also occurs during this time at around 7-8 weeks, and sending a puppy home during this time helps it to build resiliency to new experiences, Foote said.
In contrast, Sheltie breeder Apple prefers to keep her puppies in her home during the socialization period. Her puppies go to their working or sport homes at 12 weeks of age. In this manner, she said she can control the experiences her puppies have during their fear and socialization periods and can begin the focused training they need for their future homes.
Socialization of puppies should be done thoughtfully. Breeders can coach their clients on how to do this. Helping owners understand the need for positive exposure to the world’s sights, sounds, people, and animals can go a long way in keeping puppies in their home for a lifetime. According to Foote, many studies show that owners’ relinquishment of dogs tends to happen when the dogs are 6-to-8-month-old “teenagers.”
A breeder’s helpful support during those early weeks and months can help owners provide the right experiences to shape their puppy into a behaviorally healthy dog. Breeders can give puppies a boost in the right direction with early introduction to wearing a collar and leash, feeding puppies in separate bowls, and providing positive exposure to different surfaces, locations, people, and sounds. Beginning crate training can also go a long way in helping a young puppy go to its new home with confidence.
Apple said she ensures that her puppies are crate trained and have basic obedience skills before they leave. Each of her puppies is treated individually and given exposure to car rides and to the livestock with which they are bred to work. She takes them to visit new locations and new people regularly.
“I want to have them started on house-training; be leash trained; have come, sit, down, and focus work started. Pups will also have been riding in the car several times a week from 4 weeks on, so no carsickness,” Apple said. “They will have been to town, met different breeds, and many people.”
That exposure to new things and individual attention are very important if breeders choose to keep puppies past the age of 8 weeks, Foote said. Puppies that stay in the comfort of the litter during their fear period may miss out on the chance to learn to cope with new experiences, as well as they potentially could.
A puppy that is too sheltered during this time could become anxious or fearful around new things and take longer to adapt to new situations. Another potential concern when keeping litters together for too long is the individuality of each puppy. “Those puppies are not accommodated for their own individual needs,” Foote said.
If litters are only worked with as a group, one or two puppies are bound to miss out. A shy puppy in a litter of boisterous puppies may be forced into situations it’s uncomfortable with too soon, or a boisterous puppy in a group of quieter ones may not get the level of stimulation it needs. It’s important that breeders who keep their puppies through this period take the time to avoid potential behavioral complications to raise confident young dogs, Foote said.
Separating puppies from their mothers too soon, as well as weaning too early, can have unwanted effects, Foote said. From 3-to-6 weeks, puppies are in an early socialization period, learning to be dogs.
Through their mother and littermates, puppies begin to learn appropriate play behaviors. They also learn rudimentary impulse control and bite inhibition from the feedback of their siblings and mother. A puppy separated prior to 6 weeks may miss out on some of this early learning. If a puppy must go home before 7-to-8-weeks of age, Foote recommends it be “mentored” by an older puppy or tolerant dog.
Regardless of whether a breeder chooses to send a puppy home at 8 weeks or 12 weeks, it’s clear that what happens during the weeks between is what matters. This sensitive period for socialization shapes a young puppy’s future as a dog. As important as blood lines, proper socialization will give a puppy the head start it needs to be a behaviorally healthy partner, in the home, show ring, or field.
Dr. Sally Foote is a veterinarian and International Association of Animal Behavior consultant. She also is Low Stress Handling and Fear Free certified and is the current head of Cattle Dog Publishing. She practices at Okaw Veterinary Clinic in Tuscola, Ill.
Claire Apple is the owner of Golem Kennels in Pittsboro, N.C. She selectively breeds Shetland Sheepdogs and teaches obedience and herding to all breeds.